Fast Scouts, Core of the Navy ~ Frigates!

HMS SurpriseOne of the most important things to a seafarin’ man, besides stayin’ alive, was servin’ aboard a ship captained by a superior officer, think Patrick O’Brien’s Captain Aubrey. Like ye old Master and Commander’s favorite ship, Surprise, built in Le Havre and completed in 1794 (displacement 579 tons, a 126 ft gundeck with 32 32-pounder carronades and two long 6-pounder guns), the most important ship for any captain sailin’ the sea was a frigate.

nelsonFrigates were highly prized above other ships, including the behemoth Ship-of-the-Line, because of their agility and speed which enabled them to scout and relay messages to the fleet. A tactical genius, Admiral Nelson sent the Admiralty regular dispatches requesting more frigates for his fleet. According to his calculations, four-six were needed, especially when the one-two frigates normally at his disposal were often deployed as couriers, leaving his fleet blind. Nelson’s requests, however, were downplayed by the Admiralty. What would a few more frigates mean to the Vice Admiral of the White?

What made a frigate so dearly beloved and highly prize by every country at sea?

  • Frigates were light, fast scouts, the core of the navy sent to search out the enemy, attack and destroy, if necessary, escort merchant ships, and offer support to Ship-of-the-Line.
  • Frigates were self-sufficient, well-suited to independent action.
  • A frigate’s speed was determined by the optimal location and length of masts and spars, wind and sea conditions.
  • With the right wind conditions, frigates were swift lone wolves capable of outrunning any ship.
  • Frigate gunfire drew the enemy in for the fleet.
  • Frigates relayed flag messages to the fleet and blocked signals from enemy ships.
  • Frigates easily maneuvered headlands, straits, narrows, and approaches to seaports, deftly turned in high seas, and darted in and out of battle lines.
  • Frigates set sail for six months at a time, sailing vast distances in shorter periods of time.
  • Winning a frigate duel ranked high. Capturing frigates and merchant ships, generated the most prize money and prestige.
  • When sent to raid commercial/enemy ships, frigate captains often became wealthy men.
  • Rewards to victorious English captains: glory, professional superiority, a sealed reputation, advancement, possible knighthood.
  • Rewards to victorious French captains: names placed on Revolutionary Roll of Honor, names inscribed in Arc de Triomphe, fame, adulation, possible ennoblement.

USS ConstitutionBy 1800, British shipwrights were designing and building the best frigates in the world and the most versatile warships in the age of sail. Of all the frigates ever designed however, Joshua Humphrey’s American ship, the USS Constitution, ranks supreme. Humphrey’s goal to combine English and French frigate construction created the best of both, a ship capable of carrying 44 pounders.

FrigatesNavigation, survival instincts, a proving ground for ambitious officers, frigates helped naval crews believe they were indestructible. Given a frigate’s powerful and successful capabilities, is it any wonder that pirates prized frigates too? Why not? In 1799, 4 frigates were captured with gold/silver aboard and £40,000 was awarded and distributed to the crew, with the captain taking the lion’s share. To put this into perspective, a frigate captain only earned a little over £100 a year.

Black PearlGiven all that frigates could do, it seemed only natural when I wrote The Pirate’s Duchess to model the Black Regent’s ship, the Fury, after a frigate and the Black Pearl. (Pirate!)



Duty forces him to take on the pirate code, but honor brings him back.

Prudence, Duchess of Blackmoor, has one desire—to be happy again. After struggling to overcome the horrifying death of her husband, she accepts an earl’s offer of marriage, confident she’s taking a step in the right direction. But when demons refuse to die, Prudence finds herself caught in an intricate web of deceit that threatens the very foundations of all she holds dear.

When an assassination attempt on him fails, Tobias, the Duke of Blackmoor, crosses the line. Staging his own death to restore reputations of friends under attack by the same villain, and ensure his wife’s safety, he becomes The Black Regent, a notorious pirate bent on brandishing justice, never thinking he’d survive. But to his amazement, he has, and now the darkest-kept secrets are not worth losing the duchess his wife has become.

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Ahoy, me hearties! If you captained a frigate, what name would be painted on your ship?




13 Responses

  1. Barbara Monajem

    This is fascinating stuff, Katherine! Are there any frigates left today that tourists can see? (I once got to tour a ship that was, if I recall correctly, just like one of those Columbus sailed on. It was astonishingly small, and pretty scary to imagine crossing a vast ocean in it.)

    • Katherine Bone

      Ahoy, Lady Barbara! Thanks so much for commenting. I apologize that I couldn’t figure out how to see your comment on the post, but I did see it on my phone and posted several frigates that are still around today in the comment section for you. I would dearly love to visit each one. I was actually going to see the USS Constitution back in ’96 but at Falls River, my youngest fell in the bottom of the Battleship Massachusetts and we had to take a detour to the ER. (She ended up having a 4″ hairline fracture in her skull above her right ear after falling down the last ladder to the last deck when we’d told both of our youngest children not to go down without us. Le sigh…) After that, my rogue swore that we were never taking our children to more ships on vacation. Buahahaha!

  2. Katherine Bone

    Here’s some more information about the existing frigates in the world today, me hearties!

    HMS Trincomalee and her sister ship, HMS Unicorn, are two surviving British frigates of the Napoleonic Era. Built in 1812, Trincomalee was placed into reserve in 1895 and renamed Foudroyant (after HMS Foudroyant wrecked in 1897). She hit the seas again in 1897 as a training ship, and was then used as a holiday ship until 1986, when she was restored and renamed Trincomalee in 1992. Today, she is restored to her former glory in Hartlepool, England, and holds the distinction of being the oldest warship STILL afloat.

    Built in peacetime, HMS Unicorn was never rigged. A superstructure was built over her main deck and she served as a hulk and depot ship for 140 years. Because her inner structure was protected, her timbers have been well-preserved. In the 1960’s, steps were taken to convert her to a museum ship because she is the only example of a wooden ship of her kind in ordinary, Unicorn resides as a museum in Dundee, Scotland:

    USS Constitution received her name from President George Washington and launched in 1797, gaining fame for victories in the War of 1812. When she was put into dry dock in May 2015, she’d held the distinction of being the oldest commissioned war ship afloat. When USS Simpson was decommissioned September 2015, at the ripe old age of 217, USS Constitution earned the honor of being the OLDEST United States ship to have sunk an enemy:

    Dom Fernando Il e Gloria, commissioned in Portugal in 1845 was the country’s last sailing warship until her decommissioning in 1878. On January 22, 1992, her hull was removed from mud-flats then set to refloat. Her restoration and reinstatement as an Auxillary Navy Unit in 1998 is one of the greatest preservation accomplishments in history. Considered to be the 4th oldest armed frigate, she’s the 8th oldest sailing warship in naval history:

    L’Hermoine is a 1997 replica of a ship run aground and destroyed by heavy seas on September 20, 1793. The full-size replica made a journey from the US to Rochefort, France in 2015 and arrived safely back in America in June, 2015.

  3. Alyssa Alexander

    Great post. This is an area I’ve never researched, so I found it fascinating!

  4. jessicajefferson

    Katherine! I’m such a fan of your posts. They’re always bookmarked in case I ever need the research. And it’s always interesting. I had no idea about any of this and now I want to read more. Great job!

  5. dholcomb1

    USS Stout (DDG-55) is an Arleigh Burke-class missile guided destroyer–okay, it’s not a frigate, but it’s a real ship/destroyer. While I’m not related to Admiral Stout, we did correspond with him in re genealogy. He thoroughly research the Stout family (before google and existed).

    Denise Stout Holcomb

    • Katherine Bone

      Epic!!! Lady Denise, researching genealogy before the Internet took lots of time and resources. It’s great that Admiral Stout took time to research his family ties. My uncle did that as well. 😉